Residents fondly recall Jones after her recent death

Photo by Chris Sykes
From left, former Irvington High School head football coach and current Malcolm X. Shabazz High School in Newark head football coach Darnell Grant sits beside Essex County Freeholder Lebby Jones on Friday, Oct. 5, at the Irvington NAACP annual Freedom Fund Banquet fundraiser at Metropolitan Baptist Church on Springfield Avenue. Jones and Grant were honored by the Irvington NAACP at this year’s fundraising event. Jones died on Wednesday, Jan. 9.

IRVINGTON, NJ — The funeral service for Essex County Freeholder and former at large Councilwoman Lebby Jones is scheduled for Thursday, Jan. 17, at 11 a.m. at Franklin Saint John’s United Methodist Church, 142 Maple Ave., Newark.

Jones, who had been battling cancer for the last year, died Wednesday, Jan. 9. A viewing prior to her funeral is scheduled for Thursday, Jan. 17, at 10 a.m., and the Rev. Lloyd Preston Terrell will conduct the funeral.

Jones was also founder of the Irvington National Action Network Chapter and co-founder of the Team Irvington social and political organization. The reaction around town to the news of her death was swift and heartfelt.

“It’s a very sad day in the township of Irvington and throughout Essex County,” said Mayor Tony Vauss on Monday, Jan. 14. “We have lost a true pioneer for the township of Irvington, civil rights and people from all walks of life. The co-founder of Team Irvington has left a void in the heart of Essex County. She will truly be missed.”

Several Essex County elected and appointed officials echoed Vauss’ sentiments about Jones’ death.

“I am saddened by the passing of Lebby Jones,” said Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo Jr. on Thursday, Jan. 10. “As a freeholder, councilwoman and educator, she had a lifelong legacy of public service and was truly dedicated to improving the quality of life for her constituents. With the late Bilal Beasley, Lebby helped lay the groundwork for the current revival in Irvington and served as a mentor for our next generation of leaders. Our thoughts and prayers are with her family.”

Essex County clerk Chris Durkin, who worked with Jones and the other freeholders, also expressed his feelings about her death.

“Lebby Jones was a woman of great character and courage,” said Durkin on Monday, Jan. 14. “She was principled in her beliefs. Lebby was a strong voice for the people who needed her leadership and action the most.”

Some local residents who knew Jones best from their shared work in social justice, equality and civil rights movements also shared their thoughts about Jones.

“I last saw Lebby when she was presented an award by the Irvington NAACP. She took time to acknowledge me there,” former Irvington NAACP President and Vice President Kathleen Witcher, who also worked as a teacher in Newark’s public schools with Jones, said Sunday, Jan. 13. “I can recall, some years ago, when Lebby presented me an award from the Irvington NAACP for my services to the community. One should know that it is not the position or the title that you hold, but the work you accomplish that counts.”

The Irvington NAACP honored Jones on Friday, Oct. 7, at its annual Freedom Fund Banquet fundraiser and awards ceremony.

“I honored her because she wasn’t running for re-election for freeholder,” said immediate past Irvington NAACP President Merrick Harris on Monday, Jan. 14. “She was involved with Irvington for a long time, serving on the Board of Education, the Municipal Council and Essex County freeholder. I was not aware of how sick she was.”

Jones had revealed to very few people that she’d been diagnosed with cancer and was undergoing chemotherapy treatments as recently as August 2017.

Jones handpicked at large Councilwoman October Hudley to succeed her as president of the Irvington National Action Network Chapter last year in much the same way Beasley chose Mayor Tony Vauss prior to his own death in 2015. At the time, Jones said she didn’t mind stepping back from leadership of the local affiliate of the national civil rights and social and economic justice advocacy organization that the Rev. Al Sharpton had started in New York City, because she knew she was leaving it in good hands.

Hudley said she continues to be dedicated and motivated to live up to Jones’ confidence in her leadership abilities.

“The last conversation I had with Freeholder Jones was inspiring and motivational, to strive to continue her legacy,” said Hudley on Monday, Jan. 14. “I am so thankful to Freeholder Lebby Jones for being my mentor. I have some very big shoes to follow, but I will do my very best to continue to make her proud.”

“Lebby Jones was a leader who loved her community and encouraged others to always put the township of Irvington first in doing what was best for our residents and families, especially our children and senior citizens,” said Allison Bryant, of the International Rotary Club, on Monday, Jan. 14. “She was bright, like a diamond shining amongst the people she served and worked with … locally and throughout the county of Essex. She believed in keeping hope alive and yearned to do more and share more, until her last day on this earth.”

Former Mayor Wayne Smith agreed with Bryant.

“Our prayers go out to the family of Essex County Freeholder Lebby C. Jones,” said Smith on Monday, Jan. 14. “I worked with her, during my time as mayor. She was a member of the Municipal Council, as well as a member of the Board of Education. God grant her service with paradise.”